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Watching, and challenging, the armed forces

It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the military are becoming increasingly embedded into civil society. With high-profile initiatives such as “Armed Forces Day”, lengthy media coverage of soldiers in Afghanistan and targeted recruitment campaigns online, on TV, on billboards and in our schools and communities, there is a growing urgency to resist the militarisation of our everyday lives.

A new campaigning network has been created to resource and empower groups and individuals taking action against the military presence within their communities. Forces Watch will work to increase public awareness of, and challenges to, unethical armed forces recruitment practices in the UK. It will also address human rights concerns within the armed forces and critique government campaigns that use the armed forces to promote uncritical support for military solutions to international problems.

The challenge is a serious one. In 2007-2008, the army spent 50% more on marketing and recruitment than in 2001-2002. In London alone, 40% of state secondary schools were visited by army recruiters in the 2008/09 academic year – and further education colleges are increasingly a target. In November 2009, the minister of state for the armed forces, Bill Rammell, stated ominously that: “We are investigating innovative methods of extending cadet provision to state school pupils which include working closely with the Department for Children Schools and Families.”

Other developments in recruitment show a deepening level of sophistication and reach. Adverts for the armed forces range of action toys, launched in 2009, are liberally shown on children’s TV; and the dressing up clothes are sized to fit children as young as five.

Arcades of death

The development of the “army showroom” concept and the “Start Thinking Soldier” internet and TV advertising campaign are initiatives which utilise the language and tools of computer games and simulation, which young people immediately relate to, and desire.

Army showrooms in Hackney, Hounslow and Bromley are all located in busy shopping centres, “to go fishing where the fish are” as the commander of regional recruiting in London has put it. With army vehicles, computer simulation and rifles to practice shooting with, the showrooms, one of which is explicitly a recruitment centre, are a deliberate move to bring the military into contact with as many people as possible.

The “Start Thinking Soldier” simulated scenarios invite participants to test their skills in a range of strangely anodyne battlefield challenges, including the virtual chance to “fire the Army’s latest sniper rifle” (although you are not allowed to actually shoot the enemy target). It publicises a range of events so that young people “[d]on’t miss out on the chance to get up close to the Army”.

It is not only the glamorising and sanitising of warfare and getting youngsters to start thinking like soldiers that has led to a recent increase in recruitment.

The military has profited from the economic downturn particularly as its focus is to “draw non-officer recruits mainly from among young people with low educational attainment and living in poor communities.” (David Gee, Informed Choice? Armed forces recruitment practice in the UK, 2007; see review in PN 2496). Many recruits from these communities join the military as a last resort.

As PN reported last month, it is younger people from such relatively disadvantaged backgrounds who are suffering more from the fighting in Afghanistan.

The UK is the only EU country to recruit under-17-year-olds despite calls from the UN and the parliamentary joint committee on human rights to raise the minimum recruiting age.

Yet if reality falls short of the expectations of youngsters, who may not yet be old enough to marry or vote and who are unlikely to have been fully informed or be emotionally equipped to deal with the consequences, the legal obligations of enlistment may prevent them from leaving for up to six years. There is great unease within communities that their young people are being targeted.

A sustained campaign started when the first army showroom opened in east London from groups such as Hackney Stop the War, who engaged a coalition of community groups, educators and local councillors. “Youngsters in Hackney deserve better. The choice shouldn’t be between rotting on the dole or facing death or maiming in Afghanistan. Money should be poured into education, not chopped from college budgets.”

The MoD estimate that 2,300 soldiers go AWOL each year. Many others suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and experience serious problems once back in civilian life, including addiction, relationship breakdown, homelessness and a greater risk of suicide.

An uncritical acceptance of, and deference to, the military will limit public debate on alternatives to war and conflict. And without more public debate, information that is vital for informed decisions about signing up, objecting to military conduct or leaving the military, will remain difficult to access and the lives and welfare of greater numbers of young men and women will be put at risk.

Forces Watch aims to be a visible and active challenge to the current trend, contributing to public debate, raising public awareness, providing resources and research, facilitating networking opportunities for activists to share experience and skills, and campaigning on policy and practice relating to recruitment and the rights of members of the armed forces.

There are many groups working on this issue – NGOs, trade unions, youth organisations, anti-recruitment and anti-war groups.

There are undoubtedly many more who are concerned about the presence of the military within their community – as parents, educators, youth workers and community activists.

With information, campaigning materials and support from fellow activists they can overcome isolation and identify effective strategies for action.

Topics: Anti-militarism